Category Archives: Observant Jewish lifestyle

Jew Things! (Or: What Is Judaica Anyway?!)

Dear Josep,

The other day I had a strange urge to clean the top of this bookcase and the items on it.

You may be asking yourself, “What’s with all the lions?” or perhaps, “Why did she have an urge to clean that shelf while completely ignoring the clutter right underneath it?” Both legitimate questions, but for the moment I’d like to focus your attention davka on the train.

photo of silver train engine

Looks like a silver train engine, right? The only thing on the outside that betrays its secret is the subtle Hebrew inscription on the chimney.

This train was given to Eitan by his grandmother, who ran a Judaica shop at the local synagogue (where I happen to be giving a talk in a couple weeks!). It contains all sorts of Jewish surprises, and I’m going to use it to introduce you to the Judaica in my home.

But before we get to the train, I must start with #1 most important thing you will find in a Jewish home…


meme of buzz lightyear saying, "Books! Books everywhere!"

After all, this post did start with a bookcase, didn’t it?! ūüėČ

I recently heard someone refer to bookshelves as “Jewish wallpaper”. Jewish life revolves around books, and we proudly display them to express how important they are to us. I elaborated on what those Jewish bookshelves may contain in this post.

I will spare you a photo of the rest of our bookshelves, because let’s just say the aforementioned clutter is, um, consistent. (Look, I never claimed to be a good housekeeper, okay? ūüėõ )

Now, coming back to our train:

Shabbat Candlesticks

That’s what those “chimneys” on the top are supposed to be.

Many Jewish women have a pair of candlesticks they use for the Shabbat candles. Some, like in my family, have the custom of lighting an extra candle for each of their children, so sometimes they have a larger set.

You have seen my Shabbat candlesticks before:

photo of candlesticks on a windowsill

The short silver ones belonged to Eitan’s great-grandmother. The tall silver ones with the topaz stones were a gift from my grandparents for my bat mitzvah; the Hebrew letters on them are the blessing for the Shabbat candles. The china one in the center is from a pair I was given by my friends from Boulder before Eitan and I got an engaged.

R2 made the one with the colorful pebbles at preschool, and that’s what he uses; the other kids use those flower tea light holders I made in a ceramics class. The tea light holders with the Jerusalem landscape painted on them were a wedding gift. I use those for guests.

I normally use simple tea lights as Shabbat candles. We went through a phase where I was using glass bulbs filled with colored paraffin oil, but frankly, they were messy and annoying to deal with. (For the record, the candles I gave you recently are fancy and would probably not actually be used for Shabbat, because we would only be able to use them once, as we can’t put them out once they’re lit!)

Havdala Set

So, the havdala ceremony that closes the Sabbath requires three items: a multi-wicked candle, something pleasant to smell, and a cup of wine or grape juice. Many Judaica stores carry “havdala sets” that contain a candle holder, a goblet, and a container to hold spices (besamim). Often they include a little plate or tray for the items to rest on, and to use to pour the wine and put out the candle at the end of the ceremony.

photo of havdalah set
Photo credit: Olaf.herfurth [CC BY SA 3.0]

Remember that scene in By Light of Hidden Candles where Manuel stumbles into Alma’s grandmother’s Judaica shop, and snatches something off the shelf to find an excuse to be in there? The thing he snatches is a besamim holder that probably looks something like the item on the right.

So, here is the miniature “havdala set” from Eitan’s Judaica train:

photo of the havdalah set, made up of the front part of the engine and one of the "cars"

The Hebrew lettering on the “chimney” reads “borei¬†me’orei¬†ha’esh“, “Creator of the lights of fire,” the blessing we say over the havdalah candle, and the lettering on the box says besamim. I say it’s miniature, because I don’t think the candle holder or the cup are a practical size. The cup needs to contain a certain amount that won’t fit in that tiny thing, and I’ve never met a havdala candle that would fit in that little slot. This is the one we actually use:

photo of plastic plate with large candle, silver goblet, bottle of essential oil, and cloth satchel on it
The havdala candle was purchased at the same factory in Tzfat as your candles!

It’s free-standing, and we’ve never actually owned a besamim holder, a havdala candle holder, or a special goblet just for havdala. For besamim, we just use a bottle of essential oil or a satchel of cloves R1 made in school (pictured above), and for the goblet, we just use our:

Kiddush Cup

Remember these?

photo of five silver goblets of varying sizes

We use these silver cups for the Kiddush ceremony–a blessing over wine we make before the festive meals on Shabbat or holidays. Kiddush cups are often made of silver or another metal, glass, or ceramic. We have two other goblets that we don’t use:

photo of two goblets; on the left, tall goblet made of red glass painted with gold and white trim; on the right, small silver goblet
The red one belonged to my Zadie, and he used it during Passover; the silver one belonged to Eitan’s grandfather

So, one of the compartments in the train engine is a besamim holder… what is the other one?

Tzedaka Box

photo of other "car" from train, which has a slot on the top

The lettering reads tzedaka. Tzedaka is¬†charity, and it is very common to give children their own tzedaka boxes (called pushkes in Yiddish) as a gift or have them make their own–so common, in fact, that we have quite a surplus:

We do use them to collect loose change to give to charity, but mostly, they have a symbolic educational value. It may be more effective to give charity these days through online payments, credit cards, or checks, but putting a coin into a box is much more tangible, something our kids can do to learn that this is an important value.

Our train contains just one more surprise…


This one you definitely know. ūüôā

The chanukiyot we use on Chanukah are very simple, very inexpensive, standard fare from the average supermarket.

photo of five simple chanukiyot with all candles lit

In previous years, we’ve often used chanukiyot the children made at preschool. Really, you can just arrange some candles on aluminum foil, set one to the side, and call it a chanukiya.

Or, if you want to get fancier, some chanukiyot are true works of art. This was the Chanukah display at the Harim Shopping Center at the Gush Etzion Junction a few weeks before Chanukah this year:

photo of table with a display of many chanukiyot of different colors and designs

Challah Stuff

The challah loaves are a centerpiece of the Shabbat table.

photo of two braided loaves

If they are on the table while we’re making Kiddush, we need to cover them first, because according to the rules of the hierarchy in blessings, you’re technically supposed to make a blessing on bread before wine if they are both in front of you at the same time. So we cover the challah with a cloth. (In our house, usually we just keep the challahs off the table until it’s time to make the blessing on them.)

And so we have challah cutting boards, challah covers, and challah knives…

photo of table spread with lots of colorful cloths, two cutting boards and a bread knife

…and even this tray to put the challah slices in and pass around the table.

photo of tray made of wood and silver with a glass insert

Washing Cups

Remember when I showed you how to wash your hands for bread?

photo of three two-handled washing cups

We use two-handled washing cups for ritual washing before bread or upon waking. They can be simple plastic or made of metal, glass, or ceramic.

The metal thing in the back is for mayim acharonim, water poured over our fingertips after the meal is over.

Mezuza Cases

Well, I know you know what these are. ūüėČ

Eitan recently bought this one to replace a glass case that, completely out of the blue, fell and shattered into a thousand pieces a few months ago, thereby unleashing the superstitious Jewish ancestors deep in my veins: “The mezuza jumped¬†off¬†of¬†the¬†wall, okay?!” I shrilly insisted to an amused Eitan. “We need to get our mezuzas checked NOW!!!” (You see, we’re supposed to have the scrolls checked from time to time to make sure they’re are still kosher–meaning, in good condition without any of the letters smudged or anything. And there’s a well-known superstition that bad things will happen in a household where one of the mezuzas isn’t kosher, so when there is a series of unfortunate coincidences, people often say “Better check your mezuzot…” I absolutely do not believe this superstition. And yet. IT JUMPED OFF THE WALL, JOSEP, WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO UNDERSTAND FROM THIS?! ūüėõ )

Anyway: as you know, mezuza cases range from very simple plastic ones to expensive precious-metal-and-jewel-encrusted affairs. We have ones made of various metals, wood, and stone.

Prayer Paraphernalia

photo of tallit and tefillin
Eitan’s tallit and tefillin

I covered these in a post about prayer. These items are used only by men in Orthodox communities. That plastic tefillin box on the upper right protects the tefillin, and it has a mirror on it to help the man make sure it’s centered on his forehead.

I bought Eitan’s tallit for him as a wedding gift, as is the tradition in our community. ūüôā


I covered these thoroughly in A Blessing on Your Head: Jewish Headgear.

So now you know your way around a Judaica store! ūüėČ

Oh, and about the lions–that’s actually only part of my collection. My grandparents liked to collect works of art on a certain theme for each of their grandkids, and they collected lions for me, because of my name (Daniel[la] in the lion’s den). I never identified much with the prophet Daniel, but I have always loved cats, big and small, and lions in particular. (Are you a cat person too? You strike me as a cat person.)



illustrative photo of man wearing prayer shawl

Guest Letter from Jackie: A Christian at an Orthodox Jewish Prayer Service

A Christian at an Orthodox prayer service, Josep? Whoever heard of such a thing? ūüėČ

Well, unlike you, today’s guest lives in a country where they don’t need armed guards interrogating people at the door. Jacquelyn Lofstad is a 19-year-old college student from Minnesota, United States, who was raised in a Baptist family. She’s a reader who stumbled across the blog through Google, and her submission of this letter was the first contact she made with me (which is a first–all previous guest letters have been by people I know from other contexts and/or who I cajoled asked to write one!). She also writes a blog of her own about the Old Testament and how it relates to Jesus and the gospels, partially inspired by a trip she took to Israel not long ago.

She decided to share with us about an experience she had recently: observing the Shabbat morning prayer service in an Orthodox synagogue. (For those of you who need more info on what Shabbat is, click here.) I think this is a beautiful counterpoint to our previous guest letter, which was about a Jew’s positive experiences in churches!

Here’s Jackie:

Dear Josep,

Recently, I had the privilege of celebrating Sabbath at an Orthodox Synagogue. The Jewish people are beautiful, dedicated, and tenacious in their faith. I was extremely blessed to be able to observe a Shabbat (sabbath) service.

I am a 19-year-old college senior from Minnesota, United States, studying music education and history.¬† I was raised in a Baptist family but do not swear complete allegiance to any particular denomination.¬† I just believe the Bible, want to honor God and love people in the process.¬† After visiting Israel over spring break for a Bible study trip, I gained so much respect for the Jewish people’s tenacity and dedication to their faith.¬† Also, I love the Old Testament and am frustrated that the church does not talk about it enough.¬† Researching Judaism seemed like the obvious answer. Wanting to learn more, I contacted a local rabbi and asked to observe a synagogue service.

I entered the room during prayers and was handed a prayer book with English translations – praise God! My lack of education was clearly shown when I forgot that the Hebrew language and therefore the prayer books, read right to left!

One thing that struck me about the Hebrew prayers was how focused they were on God and God alone. So often I will only pray to ask for things. Their prayers focused on the glory, majesty, power, and love of Hashem (Hebrew name for God, literally translated as “the name”).

After the prayers, the Torah was brought out. The cantor and the congregation sang and chanted with joy as the Torah was lifted out of the arc in the front of the room and brought to the center of the congregation. The blessing of having the word of God IS something that we should rejoice over. The Torah in the center reminded me how God is a God for all people. He comes down, right into the middle of our lives. The word of God speaks right into the middle of our messy situations. The Torah reading for this day the “snake being lifted” in Numbers. They also read from the prophets on a yearly rotation – this week the men read from 1st Samuel.

The rabbi then spoke about a former rabbi who died at the hands of communist Russia because he refused to be transported on the sabbath. While he could have easily justified breaking sabbath to save his life, he decided not to because of the people that looked up to him. While I do not have the same sabbath convictions as the Jewish people, I also have people looking up to me. I need to take my actions seriously, because as a teacher, I will have people looking at my life as they make decisions.

After the service, which was over two hours (they are dedicated people), I was invited to the Kiddush lunch afterwards. The stew was cooked the night before and left on the stove because no cooking is done on the sabbath.

One lady told me about how she read a book about how a Christian converted to Judaism because she felt like Yom Kippur offered more room for grace than Christianity. This saddened me because we clearly are not showing/sharing the love and grace of God that well then!

I had a long conversation with another woman about Israel, Judaism, and many other things (Israel actually opened many doors for conversations so praise God!). She shared how it was difficult to get a job without working on Saturdays. I again was struck by how these people’s first priority was their faith. I can learn from this. I was then asked why many Christians don’t like Israel (This question was a bit stressful–19-year-old having to answer for all Christians ūüėõ ). I responded by saying that many Christians misunderstand both the heart of God and the Jewish people. At the end of our conversation, we thanked each other for sharing our perspectives–it was a really sweet moment.

I learned so much from this visit and hope I represented Christianity well. I am encouraging my friends and colleagues to be willing to experience new things and hear people’s stories. The world needs people who care. Be that person, because Jesus was that person. He heard people’s stories. He saw the beauty in diversity. And he was Jewish too ūüôā


Are you a reader who has something interesting to share with Josep and me about religion or culture? Don’t be shy–be like Jackie! Submit a guest letter!

Q&A with Random Strangers on the Internet, Pt. 2!

Before I begin, I wanted to bring your attention to a wonderful review of¬†Letters to Josep that Yael Shahar, author of¬†A Damaged Mirror, posted on her blog (which subsequently got a mention in this month’s¬†Jewish Book Carnival). Thanks, Yael!

Onwards. Back in June,¬†I posted a highly amusing piece¬†(if I do say so myself. Well, Josep found it amusing, and that’s what counts here!)¬†in which I decided to answer some questions or comments that various people typed into a search engine and somehow arrived at my blog.

Well, traffic to my blog has steadily increased in the past few months¬†and I’ve been getting more “search term questions”–some of them more bizarre than others–in my stats. So, I have decided to do another Q & A session with Random Strangers on the Internet!

Let us begin:

“why are the jews so weird”

Why is the sky blue? Why is water wet? ūüėõ

Here are my highly unprofessional hypotheses:

  1. God could only have chosen an entire nation of weirdos to take on the role of “light unto the nations” and “a nation of priests.” A’right? Because nobody normal would agree to take on this insanity.
  2. We’ve been through a lot. You have to be pretty weird to survive 2,000 years of exile, persecution, massacres, and hatred, and still love and celebrate life. In the immortal words of Seal, “Oh, we’re never gonna surviiiiiive uuuuuunless we are a little craaazy!” We’re like your eccentric grandma who has been through so much, she¬†doesn’t give a rat’s behind¬†what anybody thinks about her anymore. (…Oh, you don’t have a grandma like that? I do. Hi Bubbie! ūüėõ )
  3. Inbreeding? Researchers found a bottleneck of only around 350 Ashkenazi Jews during the Middle Ages from which the entire Ashkenazi population today is descended. This could account for some, erm, weirdnesses.
  4. Our intense holidays seasons are enough to drive anybody completely batty. And we’ve been doing ’em for 3,000 years. So.

“jewish people are strange”

…Search terms along these lines are¬†apparently what I get for having a post titled “15 Weird Things Jews Do” go viral.

“what’s the jew thing to do”

Hmm. Well, that¬†depends on the context. A typical Jewish response to pretty much anything is to complain about it, argue¬†about it with anyone who’s willing to listen, joke about it,¬†and then sing loudly and dance the hora because it’s Shabbat/a holiday/a wedding/a bar mitzvah/a happy occasion of any sort and we’ll be darned if we aren’t going to celebrate.

“all the thins jews dont do”

That, my friend, is a very long list.

image of man with huge book with caption, "All the Things Jews Don't Do"

Of the 613 commandments, 365 are “negative” commandments (do nots). ¬†I can’t find a comprehensive list of the negative commandments separated from the positive ones, but here’s a complete list of the 613 based primarily on Maimonides (there are other sources that list them a little differently).

But many of those are not that relevant to daily life. The most important things to know about Jews not doing is: not eating non-kosher food (click here to find out what that means) and not working or performing creative activities on the Sabbath (explained here) or on certain holidays (explained here). There are a bunch of other random stuff, and if you’re interested in learning more, you can check out my book ūüôā

“why do ultra orthodox jews clap”

Because… they’re happy and they know it?

Okay okay but seriously–there is an actual thing about clapping hands. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught that “dancing and clapping hands can sweeten all the decrees.” According to the kabbalah, the right hand is associated with lovingkindness and mercy, and the left hand is associated with justice. Thus, symbolically bringing them together brings mercy into justice.

Or something.

Either way, Breslover hassidim sometimes clap while they pray for this reason, and other Jews who are into Hassidism have adopted the practice as well. Especially during the high holidays.

See, for example, this little scene from “The Guests,” a (really great) Israeli film about a Breslover couple in Jerusalem:

…Yeah, shouting at the top of your lungs is also a Breslover thing. It’s kind of like the shofar, only using your voice. There’s a guy here who does this in public on a regular basis and you can hear him from all over the town.

“throw out dishes in jewish religion”

YES. THANK YOU. Contrary to the popular myth, as described in my recent post on the subject, we do¬†not bury dishes that have been made non-kosher. In the case of ceramic dishes, they cannot be kashered, and therefore we have to throw them out. Fortunately, I personally have never had an issue with a ceramic dish; it is usually cooking utensils like spatulas and wooden spoons that get mixed up around here. You know, you’re standing over the stove, composing your next blog post in your head while you fry the onions, and–whoops! Wrong spatula.

…Okay, so I’m kind of a space cadet. But to be fair it happens to Eitan more often than to me!

“an invitation to pray for israel during the days of awe”

Consider yourself invited! We can use any prayer we can get!

“17 tammuz liquid fast orthodox jewish”

No, actually, the 17th of Tammuz is a typical Jewish fast, which means we refrain from both eating and drinking. More on Jewish fasts here, and more on the 17th of Tammuz and the Three Weeks here.

“judeo arabic phrases”

Sorry, all I know are some very basic Palestinian Arabic phrases. After finishing the French program on DuoLingo, I decided to take a break from DuoLingo (which had been RULING MY LIFE for the past 2.5 years) and from Romance languages and focus on studying spoken Palestinian Arabic through this awesome website for Hebrew speakers, Madrasa.

But often, Jewish dialects of other languages are¬†basically the same as those languages with a few Hebrew and Aramaic words and phrases thrown in. You’ll be pretty safe with “insh’allah” (“God willing”), “mashallah” (“God has willed it”), “alhamdullilah” (“Praise God”), etc., like the Muslims say!

More about Jewish languages here.

“we are the battle ground between good and evil”

Yeah, we totally are.

“was hitler an amalekite”

We Jews argue that he was, in the sense that he “inherited” the spiritual legacy of Amalek. (The actual nation of Amalek disappeared thousands of years ago, so he probably was not one in the genetic sense.) More about that here.

“king david ultimate in tshuva”

King David does stand as a very important example in teshuva (repentance). King Saul, his predecessor, lost his right to the throne because after he sinned, he refused to own up to it when he was confronted by Samuel the Prophet. King David, on the other hand, immediately admitted that he had sinned. There is an entire chapter in Psalms that is believed to have been composed by him when he was confronted by Nathan the Prophet about it (chapter 51).

More about King David and his general awesomeness here, and more about teshuva here.

“the influence of juwish on the development of islam and christianity scriptures”

I’d say we were more than an “influence”; we are the “original,” in the sense that we came first. According to Islam, our scripture is a distorted version of what God originally gave us at Sinai, and the Qur’an is the real deal; according to Christianity, God made a new covenant with humanity when He came to earth as Jesus and sacrificed himself on the cross, nullifying certain aspects of our scripture and replacing them with the Christian bible.

“two most important godly customs”

Let’s see. If I had to choose two customs that are the most important for all of humanity, I think I’d go for prayer and a weekly day of rest (what we practice as Shabbat). Prayer helps us stay connected to ourselves and to God and to hope. A weekly day of rest is good for us in all kinds of ways. Take one day a week to switch off your phone and have a good meal or two with your friends and family, to pray, and to enjoy what you have accomplished that week. Trust me, it’s great stuff.

“is ethiopian jew married another’s jew?”

If you mean, “Can Ethiopian Jews marry other Jews?” the answer is absolutely! I know at least two¬†such couples personally, and look at this adorable music video made by an Ashkenazi Israeli who married an Ethiopian Israeli woman and wrote a song about the coming together of their families:

The singer, Yossi Turetsky, is the son of Ashkenazi immigrants from Great Britain, and his wife made aliyah from Ethiopia with her family during Operation Solomon. An excerpt from the lyrics:

We left the Land thousands of years ago
The distances between us were enormous
We longed for each other each and every moment
For you and me to unite was possible only in our dreams
But the unbelievable happened suddenly…

We are a home again–can you believe it?
We are together again–this is a sign of God’s presence
We are once again being renewed as in those days
We are here again; it is a miracle of God

More about Jewish cultural identities here.

“jew boy selection”

*wince* Too many Holocaust connotations there buddy.

“michal bat esther stabbing”

Yeah, that was scary. Thank God, she’s okay and she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. She has even got involved in peace activism since the attack, partially as a reaction to it.

“are different languages of the world punishment”

My friend Haviv asked me about that! Traditionally it is thought that yes, it was. But I think it’s not all that clear-cut.¬†Here’s my take on it.

“cardboard definition torah”

I… what?

“names of the six compartments of the jewish temple”

I’m not sure what six compartments you are¬†referring to. The Tabernacle and the First Temple had three main areas: the¬†hatzer, the courtyard; the¬†heikhal, the outer hall; and the¬†dvir, or the inner hall, which housed the Holy of Holies. The Second Temple was larger and had additional areas, but that would make more than six.

More about the Temple here.

¬†“ur light/contrast if you want to feel the effects i’m looking for . code: select all if (!track.has weapons()) { // so what are you going to threaten me with? exhaustion gas? return threat level::none; }”

I don’t know what game you’re playing, or how on earth Google decided it had anything to do with me, but no, I do not plan to threaten you with exhaustion gas. (….???)

“letter to a friend on eid al-adha”

God bless you, Yasmina, I’ve gotten many, many views from Muslim-majority countries thanks to your guest letter.

“funny exclamatory pictures”/”exclamatory expressions”

After seeing both of these I wondered what on earth people were finding on my blog with this search term. So I Google-Image-ed it, and apparently, this picture from 10 Essential Words in Judeo-English is one of the top results:


Not exactly what I would have described as “exclamatory,” but hey, go figure.

Any other questions, Internet?! Don’t be shy, ask in a comment or via the contact page¬†or in an e-mail to letterstojosep at gmail dot com! I love getting questions from readers!

A Blessing on Your Head: Jewish Headgear

Dear Josep,

In May of 2007 I received the following missive from you:

“Hi Dee,

Just a fast¬†question: How can I clean my kippah? ūüôā



I¬†found the question pretty hilarious, given that A) I did not, at the time, own any kippot of my own, much less clean them; B)¬†Why do you even have a kippah to clean?! You’re supposed to be Catholic!!!¬†ūüėõ

So I relayed it¬†to my mom, who helpfully responded, “Vacuum cleaner? Car washing? Sandblasting?” And¬†the other converso-descended friend we were in touch with at the time responded with an equally helpful, “Tell him to toss it in the washing machine with some holy water and ‘star’ himself seven times.”

…Oh, we were an entertaining bunch, weren’t we. ūüėõ

Nine years later, I have finally given you a solution: a new one!

Yes, of course I took a picture of it for the blog before I sent it to you. What use would it have been otherwise?! :P
Yes, of course I took a picture of it for the blog before I sent it to you. What use is anything if I don’t get a blog post out of it?! ūüėõ

And in its honor I think it’s time for a post on the various things Jews wear on their heads.¬†But first:

Why Do We Wear Things on Our Heads At All?

Wearing a kippah regularly is not a Torah obligation; in fact, it’s hardly even a rabbinic obligation, except when studying Torah or praying. The Sages decreed it necessary to cover one’s head in those contexts, to encourage humility before God. But it became a very strong and virtually universal Ashkenazi custom for men to cover their heads at all times. (In some Sephardi communities, this custom was never adopted, and men only cover their heads for prayer and Torah study.) It doesn’t have to be with a kippah; it could be a hat, or a cloth, or a napkin, or a flowerpot. (Okay, I’m not sure about the flowerpot.) The point is that the head must be covered.

So what about women? First, we have to differentiate between two separate¬†issues here. There’s covering one’s¬†head, and covering one’s¬†hair. Covering our¬†heads falls under the same category as the kippah, and theoretically, we should all be obligated to cover our heads when studying Torah or praying. But since unmarried Jewish women tended not to cover their hair, the custom of covering their¬†heads¬†eventually faded, and in Ashkenazi communities it is generally not expected of young women to cover their heads in those contexts. Sephardi custom, however, maintained that women must cover their heads while praying or studying Torah¬†until very recently, when they were influenced by the Ashkenazim. The late Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef (may his memory be for a blessing) tried to reestablish that custom in Sephardi girls’ schools in Israel.

So that’s¬†head covering.¬†Hair covering is a different story altogether. Most halakhic authorities maintain that married Jewish women must cover their hair as part of our customs regarding modesty. They link¬†it to a passage in the Bible, which gives it a lot more weight than the head-covering thing. I took a class on this once and it’s a very complicated issue, but in short, there is a wide variety of opinions on how much hair needs to be covered. In some old-school American Orthodox families the women do not cover their hair, but today most religious women do cover their hair to some degree. Historically, unmarried women may have covered their hair too, but today it is universally accepted that unmarried women don’t cover their hair.

Note that this is one different between Jewish women’s hair coverings and¬†the Muslim practice of wearing a¬†hijab. The¬†hijab is worn when the young woman hits puberty, regardless of whether she is married.

Okay. So now we know why. Now, let’s talk about what:

For the Gentlemen

The Kippah

Also known as a yarmulke in Yiddish, this is the little dome-shaped cap that most religious Jews wear. More than a cap to fulfill the head covering requirement mentioned above, the kippah has become a statement, a declaration that the wearer is a religious Jew. As you saw yourself, there are many different styles and types, from the crocheted ones (like your FCB one above) worn by the modern Orthodox to the black velvet ones worn by the ultra-Orthodox, from the leather ones associated with American Jews to the highly decorative embroidered caps associated with Bukharan Jews.

by Yaffa Phillips [CC BY SA 2.0]
A kippah stand, probably at the shuk in Jerusalem. Photo by Yaffa Phillips [CC BY SA 2.0]

The Black Hat

The term “black hat” has become a way to identify a certain stream of Judaism–usually ultra-Orthodox or Hassidic. It tends to be part of the black and white “uniform” worn by most ultra-Orthodox men, which reflects the clothing worn by the noble class in 17th century Poland. These come in a variety of shapes, but they are usually round with a medium-wide brim. Jewish men who wear these black hats usually wear a black velvet kippah underneath it.

A sea of black hats at the Kotel

The Streimel

This is the furry round hat certain streams of Hassidim wear on Shabbat and special occasions, once again based on the clothing of the nobility in 17th-century Eastern Europe.

By Boaz Gabriel Canhoto (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Boaz Gabriel Canhoto (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Other Hats

Throughout history Jewish men have worn other hats, in combination with or instead of the kippah. In America, baseball caps were popular at one point. The¬†hat worn by¬†Tevye the Milkman in the various productions of Fiddler on the Roof was typically worn by Jews¬†in¬†Eastern Europe of that time period.¬†In the Middle East and India, Jewish men wore turbans or other types of hats that were common in that area and period. The Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, for example, wears a special Middle Eastern-style hat. I’m not elaborating on all those here because most of them¬†were not unique to Jews, and the idea of this post is to help you recognize specifically Jewish headgear. But my friend Shimon, for example, feels that this¬†is a very Jewish hat:

Shimon in his pinstripe flat brim ocho. Photo taken by his amazing wife, photographer Mandy Detwiler
Shimon in his pinstripe flat brim ocho, and yes, those are his real payot. Photo taken by his amazing wife, photographer Mandy Detwiler; you can view more of her work on her FB page here.

For the Ladies

The Tichel/MitpaŠł•at

“Tichel” (that’s “tikhl”) is Yiddish, and “mitpaŠł•at” is Hebrew, and they both mean “scarf.” This is what I usually wear.¬†There is a wide variety of types and shapes and ways to tie them, from oblong rectangle scarves to square scarves folded into triangles to pre-sewn “apron scarves” that achieve¬†the many-layered look without requiring an obscene amount of bulk and wrapping and matching. As you can imagine, some ladies have this down to an art. See, for example, the Wrapunzel website.

The style I've been favoring lately: a single Pashmina scarf wrapped around and tied in back.
The style I’ve been favoring lately: a single Pashmina scarf wrapped around and tied in back.

Here's one from when I was feeling fancier.
Me in a fancier multi-scarf wrap.

How to tell a tichel from a hijab:

The modesty standards of Islam require that a woman cover all (or most) of her hair¬†and her neck. Judaism is more lenient than this. If you can see the woman’s neck, it’s probably a tichel. If it wraps all the way around her face and hides her neck, it’s probably a hijab.

The Sheitel

“Sheitel” is Yiddish for “wig.”

…I know. Why would you cover your hair–for modesty’s sake–with something that looks exactly like your hair?

Well,¬†frankly,¬†that’s why I don’t wear them. ūüėČ But it’s actually a lot more widespread in the ultra-Orthodox world than in the modern Orthodox one, mostly for societal reasons. You see, when the question was first asked if it was permissible to cover one’s hair with a wig, wigs didn’t really resemble natural hair.

One might argue that these things resemble nothing found in nature.
One might argue that these things resemble nothing found in nature.

Therefore it was ruled that there was no problem. As wigs became more and more realistic, the question was revisited, and most rabbis agree that covering one’s hair is a more complex question of modesty than, say, covering one’s knees; after all, if it was immodest to show one’s hair, why should it be okay for unmarried women to do so? Therefore they concluded that it’s more of a mystical issue than a practical one pertaining to modesty, and the important thing is that the natural hair be covered–even if someone looking at the woman can’t tell that that’s the case.

Furthermore, many ultra-Orthodox rabbis feel that wigs are preferable because it’s much easier for a woman to cover all of her hair with one than with a scarf. (Most modern Orthodox rabbis hold that married women can show a certain amount of hair in the front, which is why you can see some of mine in the pictures above.) They also argue that women are more likely to cover their hair if they can cover it with a wig, because¬†covering it with something else makes them stand out. And I can certainly testify that there is something to this. Every time I go back to the USA I feel more and more like an alien from outer space with my covered hair and long skirts. People are polite about it, but it draws a lot of attention, and it’s exhausting. Sheitels are much more common in the USA than they are in Israel for that reason, even among those who consider themselves modern Orthodox.

Deborah Friedman was kind enough to send me these photos of her in her sheitels. The one on the left is called a "fall", which is held in place by a headband, and the one on the right is a full wig.
This is Deborah, a friend of my in-laws’ from Denver, who was kind enough to send me these photos of her in her sheitels. The one on the left is called a “fall”, which is held in place by a headband, and the one on the right is a full wig.

Some¬†ultra-Orthodox rabbis also maintain that there is a maximum length that is permissible (usually down¬†to the woman’s chin).¬†In contrast, the¬†Lubavitcher rebbe, leader of the Chabad Hassidic stream (described here), asserted that women should wear long, luxurious wigs so they will get enjoyment out of this mitzvah and feel¬†beautiful.

The Hat

Obviously, another option for covering one’s hair would be a hat. Berets are very popular because they are comfortable and super easy to put on. Just stuff your hair in and you’re good to go. They’re what I wear when I’m in a rush and can’t be bothered with all the wrapping and hair clips and whatnot.

levys-35 (2)
Like this one

Fancier, more formal hats are also worn, but they tend to be associated with the older generation; it’s the fancy scarves that are most fashionable among young women today.

On the most casual end of the spectrum is a very curious hat known as the snood.

The only time I ever wore this in public was when traveling. You try sitting on an airplane for 11 hours with one of those multi-scarf contraptions on your head.
The only time I ever wore this in public was when traveling. You try sitting on an airplane for 11 hours with one of those multi-scarf contraptions on your head.

They may look kind of odd but they are certainly the most comfortable of all the options, especially for those of us with long hair. Many women, especially ultra-Orthodox women, choose to wear them around the house or in other casual settings.

I don’t know if your son will inherit your odd obsession with Judaism–he could end up rebelling and becoming a priest, or something ūüėõ –but for whatever it’s worth, I hope he enjoys the gift from his self-proclaimed Jewish aunt. <3

Oh, and by the way–hand wash it. With detergent. And stretch it out to dry over an upside-down bowl to help it maintain its shape. ūüėČ

Much love,


5 Things Religious People Get Right about Sex

Prefer to listen? I read this post for the Jewish Geography podcast:

Dear Josep,

Yeah, I had a feeling¬†that title would get your attention. ūüėõ

I¬†mentioned to you that I recently¬†began studying¬†to become a madrikhat kallah, a¬†bridal¬†counselor.¬†Premarital counselling¬†in the religious community¬†means something a little different from what it means in other places. It’s not the “therapy” kind of counseling. While we do address various aspects of building a healthy relationship, the main job of a¬†madrikhat kallah¬†(or¬†madrikh hatanim,¬†for males) is fairly technical: to teach the laws of family purity. (If you have no idea what that is, click here.) This is necessary because this will often be the first time the bride will encounter these laws. Unlike with the other Big Two–Shabbat and kashrut–she¬†hasn’t had a chance to learn them organically. So it has become the norm in our community to study with a bridal counselor before the wedding. (In Israel it is actually a requirement to register for marriage with the Rabbinate–even if you are completely secular. Which I find bizarre and fairly pointless, but they didn’t ask me.)

Ideally, a madrikhat kallah is kind of a cross between a premarital counselor, a halakhic teacher, and a sex educator. Unfortunately, not all madrikhot kallah fulfill each of these roles to an ideal degree. There are far too many young women (and men) who begin their marriages ignorant of some very basic information about sexuality, halakha, and/or fertility, and this can cause a lot of problems and unnecessary suffering. I hope to be part of a new generation of madrikhot kallah who will prevent that.

Moving along. You probably don’t remember this, but about a year into our correspondence, we had a discussion about premarital sex: for or against. (I wonder who was for, and who was against? ūüėõ )¬†Now as you can imagine this was not exactly a comfortable discussion for me to be having, given that I was still single and all, but I guess it came up, and I decided it was worth tackling. It was a fairly classic disagreement between a religious person and a secular person on this topic, and we concluded by agreeing to disagree, since I didn’t have the experience or knowledge to back up my point of view. You said we would talk about it again in ten years; that my views on it will have changed.

Well… it hasn’t quite been ten years yet, but I think it’s fair to say that I’ve gained enough knowledge and insight to respond with some authority to 25-year-old you. ūüėČ Now, I’m sure that the current you is probably also wiser and more mature when it comes to this topic, and I bet if we discussed it again, it would be a very different conversation. But I decided to post this on our blog, not as a response to you specifically, but because I think the secular¬†world is very dismissive and disdainful towards the religious attitudes towards sex, and it’s a huge shame, because honestly, I think there’s a lot y’all can learn from us.

There’s more than enough material out there about what religious people can sometimes get wrong about sex–as I mentioned, inadequate sexual education and premarital¬†counselling, shame,¬†etc. etc. etc. I’m sure you’ve heard all that before, and these are things we are working on as a society and I think there has been a lot of progress.

But here are some things I have learned in the eight years since that conversation, about what religious people get right about sex.

1) Modern society’s insistence on the separation between sex and love can be very damaging for monogamous relationships.

This is really fundamental to understanding our original¬†disagreement. The mainstream secular conception is that sex is (and I think you even made this comparison) like a sport: something you do for pleasure with other consenting adults, that you can “get better at” the more experience you have. And the way to enjoy it the most, is to have a variety of different and exciting experiences.

…Well no freakin’ wonder secular society views marital sex as a drag. What’s “new and exciting” about it?

I have a few problems with this view. One is that¬†it’s intellectually inconsistent.¬†You can’t argue on the one hand that sex is completely separate from love, and then turn around and say that remaining faithful to one partner is a fundamental principle of a happy monogamous relationship. It makes no sense. If you believe that remaining sexually faithful to one partner is an elementary criterion for being in a faithful romantic relationship, that means that sex and romantic love¬†must be connected to each other. If they weren’t, why would you care who your partner slept with? It’s her body, she can do what she wants with it; it has nothing to do with you.

Unless it does.

(Or unless you’re one of those polyamory or “open marriage” people. But let’s not even go there. The vast majority of humanity intuitively considers¬†sleeping with someone other than your life partner¬†infidelity.)

The traditional conception of sex championed¬†by the major faiths¬†is that it’s less like a sport and¬†more like, say, figure skating.¬†Sure, you can be a fine figure skater, but if you’re skating with a partner who doesn’t know your routine and whom you don’t trust, things are bound to get awkward. The longer you skate together, the more you learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, the better you skate together. The analogy isn’t perfect, though, because sex is a lot less about learned “skill” or inborn “talent,” and a lot more about effective communication.¬†We’ll elaborate¬†more later.

2) The entire idea of “sexual compatibility” is¬†based on a very¬†short-sighted view of sexual relationships.

This was one of your¬†main arguments in favor of¬†premarital sex, and you were not alone in this argument. There is a common idea¬†it is necessary to “try it out” with a potential partner before getting married, to make sure you are “compatible.” And when you’re a young secular person who hasn’t been involved in a real long-term relationship, of course the idea makes sense. If you’re picking up a girl at the bar and heading to a hotel room, all you’ve got there is two strangers with no basis for knowing what the other person prefers, and no relationship of trust and communication to work it out. What if she likes X, Y, and Z and you don’t? Bummer. Well, that didn’t go well. Awkward.

But in a long-term monogamous relationship those things are completely irrelevant. Why? Two reasons:

  1. You have your entire lives to figure it out. When you are with a partner who you trust and feel totally comfortable with, you can make compromises, you can try different things, you can experiment, you can learn together. You can make mistakes, you can laugh. You can have an awkward and disappointing experience… and then try again tomorrow. It’s a whole different¬†paradigm–and it’s the very paradigm that makes marriages work.¬†Commitment to sticking it out even when things are messy and difficult, and communicating effectively throughout, are essential to a healthy relationship of any kind.
  2. People change. Their desires, needs, and preferences change over time. We get older, our priorities change, our schedules change, our physiology and hormones change, and let’s not even talk about pregnancy and babies, right?…

My point is, a couple’s first sexual experience is actually a pretty terrible “sample” by which to measure the success, or lack thereof, of their potential sex life. The question of “What if he likes X and I like Y?” is¬†far less important than the question of, “Do I feel comfortable enough with him¬†to discuss what I like and don’t like? Does he feel comfortable enough with me to do the same? Are we open to listening to each other and learning about the other’s needs, and adapting to each other as we grow?” That is real compatibility: good communication. And that is something that can be tested, built, and nourished without ever getting in bed.

Sex¬†is not a “performance” that either succeeds or fails. It’s a journey you embark on together. And it gets better and better with time. Which brings us to the next point:

3) Studies show that statistically,¬†married people are more satisfied with their sex lives…¬†and the more *religious* they are, the more satisfied they are.

Yes, you read that right. A survey by the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University found that married couples have more frequent and more satisfying sex than their unmarried counterparts. A study by the University of Chicago found that married, religious Christian women had much more satisfying sex lives than their non-religious counterparts.

Well, that kind of flies in the face of the “sexually suppressed puritanical Christian” stereotype, doesn’t it?

It is a known fact that both divorce rates and infidelity rates are lower in religious communities. “Aha,” says the modern secular person, “but that’s probably because divorce is taboo in those communities and more people are stuck in loveless marriages.”

Are they? The data tells a different story–at least when it comes to Jews.¬†A survey by the Orthodox Union found that Orthodox Jews are significantly happier in their marriages than the general population, and there have been other studies (University of Georgia, University of Toronto, and a report by a professor at Oxford) that showed that Jews had happier marriages¬†than members of other faiths.

“But what if it’s just ‘ignorance is bliss’?” protests the modern secular person. “That they don’t know what’s out there, and what could be better?”

Right back atcha:¬†what if it’s people who¬†engage in casual sex who don’t know what could be better? What if they are missing an entire dimension to sex that makes it so much more than a mere pleasurable physical experience?

To me it seems that¬†modern secularism conceives of the “quest” for a good sex life the same way we conceive of the “quest” for, like, the tastiest strawberry in the batch. Gotta try ’em all before you can judge which is the best, right?¬†But¬†hello, we’re not talking about an experience with a strawberry, we’re talking about an experience with a person!¬†An experience that can be a powerful one¬†of utmost connection and love. It’s the difference between¬†reading Shakespeare as a teenager, and reading Shakespeare¬†after earning a Ph. D. in literature. An experience of entirely different depth, that you can’t even comprehend before you get there.

Even if you dismiss all that, and want to argue that¬†we’re “settling” for an only mildly tasty strawberry… wouldn’t you rather be the guy who is totally happy with his strawberry, than the guy constantly thinking about the tastier strawberries that might be out there?…

It's not the size of the strawberry, it's the sweetness of the sugar. Or something. Okay, how about we lay off the strawberry analogy?
Okay, maybe let’s lay off the strawberry analogy.

4)¬†If you successfully¬†build your relationship on effective communication and trust, when you wait until marriage, you’re at a significant¬†advantage for starting a positive long-term sexual relationship.

In the seven-and-a-half years I’ve been married, and given my interest in becoming a madrikhat kallah,¬†I’ve¬†come in contact with¬†a few programs and books geared towards the general public about how to improve one’s sex life. And after that conversation with you, I was actually kind of surprised–and fairly self-satisfied ūüėõ –to discover that for the most part, they don’t focus on “physical technique”; they focus on how to make a meaningful connection, to communicate well, to understand your partner’s needs and desires, to flow with your partner, to listen to your partner. Sure, there are some technical details that are important and helpful, but let’s just say it ain’t rocket science, and there’s plenty of very easily accessible material addressing it.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of religious couples who do not learn how to communicate well before marriage, and there are plenty of religious marriages that start out badly in this area. But for the most part, it’s not because “they don’t know what they’re doing”; it’s because they don’t know how to listen and communicate with each other. (Important note: this is all putting aside various disorders and stuff that may be affected by an overly restrictive or harshly negative¬†view of sex in the community. That’s also an important conversation, but it’s a different one.)

And you know what’s the most effective way to learn to listen and communicate with each other? Listening and communicating–in a setting that does not involve the pressure, tension, and vulnerability of a first sexual encounter.

You asked me once how it’s possible to date somebody without ever touching him. I laughed. “You….¬†talk?” I suggested.¬†“You….¬†spend time together?”¬†I later explained that building a relationship without touching each other¬†gives you the opportunity to lay the foundations of your relationship by learning how to communicate through other means first. I know that a lot of people think–as you do–that casual touch means nothing.¬†Science, however, begs to differ. Your body releases certain hormones in response to touch, which can influence how you think about the person you are touching. There was a study that showed that people gave much bigger tips to waiters who touched them lightly on the arm, versus waiters with whom they had no physical contact. Touch is more powerful than you think, and it can affect your judgement, especially when there is sexual attraction involved.

I think what you were really asking me, though, was–how do you express romantic affection for someone if you can’t hug or kiss him or her? Good question, Josep, and that’s exactly my point! Everyone¬†should know how to communicate love through means other than touch.¬†Touch is a most powerful tool for communication. But other kinds of communication are just as important, and they tend to get neglected when touch is on the table.

So yes, dating without touch was hard. It was very hard. But both Eitan and I learned a lot from it. The communication skills we mastered during that period have served us very well in our marriage. And the magic of this moment was definitely worth the wait:

First time we ever held hands.
The first time we ever touched on purpose.

5) A li’l self-control ain’t never¬†done hurt nobody.

This is a major beef I have with the common attitudes of mainstream society. They tend to¬†equate self-control with suppression. The very idea of waiting until marriage is just ridiculous in modern culture. “Puritanical.” Either you’re a crazy religious person, or you’re an old-fashioned prude.

The thing is… there’s¬†a middle ground between an unhealthily negative and oppressive¬†attitude towards sex and the kind of “openness” that characterizes modern culture.

You know why this attitude is really strange to me? Take eating, for example. Fad diets are all the rage these days. The media is full of information (and misinformation) about which types of¬†foods to eat and which to avoid. This can be taken to quite an extreme; the language people use to describe eating habits (“clean” eating, “sinful” food, [insert name of diet here]-“legal”) sometimes speaks in terms of morality. People¬†talk about eating unhealthy food¬†as though it is some kind of moral failing. But even without that extreme, there is this totally accepted idea that for the sake of your long-term physical health, you must exercise self-control.

Why is this a totally accepted idea about long-term physical health, but not about long-term sexual health? Why does nobody tell young people about the damaging effects of¬†overexposure to pornography, for example? Why does nobody tell them that people who engage in casual sex tend to be more anxious and depressed than their monogamous peers? With all this focus on educating teens about STDs and birth control and consent, no one dares to raise the question whether the complete lack of boundaries among young people could be¬†damaging to them in some way. There has been a lot of awareness raised in recent years about consent, and exactly what it means, and how to be sure there is consent, etc. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very important conversation, but… the entire thing¬†is completely bizarre to me because in communities like mine, that distinction is hardly necessary. Barring situations of abuse, it is abundantly clear to a religious man when it is okay to have sex with a woman¬†and when it isn’t. He doesn’t have to sit through a “sexual consent class” in college to figure this out.¬†Even within a marriage, halakha is very explicit¬†about consent. A man is not allowed to have sex with his wife if she is drunk, sleeping, angry at him, or otherwise disinclined. These ideas¬†have been incorporated¬†in¬†Jewish law in black and white for hundreds of years. Very clear boundaries make these situations¬†so much easier to navigate.

In summary. I’m not saying it’s impossible to have a healthy marriage or long-term relationship if you engage in the kind of sexual behaviors that are considered normal in secular culture. Of course not! What I’m saying is, don’t¬†pity us religious people for our¬†strict boundaries around¬†sexuality. Those very boundaries might be what make us statistically more likely to have happier¬†marriages. And the “sexual freedom” that characterizes modern culture might actually work¬†against you in the long run.

Food for thought.



The Biscuit, the Cream, and the Talmud

Dear Josep,

When you were here last December, you stopped at a candy store at the Mahane Yehuda shuk (open air market) in Jerusalem and asked the shopkeeper to recommend something¬†to buy for my kids. He gave you a box of something, and told you they were very popular in the winter. The type of sweet¬†he gave you is called a¬†Krembo (a Hebrew contraction literally meaning “cream in it”). They consist¬†of a round cookie, upon which is a pile of marshmallow cream (usually vanilla, but other flavors are available too, like mocha and banana), coated¬†in a kind of waxy chocolate:

"Schaumkuss-1" by Rainer Z ... 18:49, 19 April 2008 (UTC) - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Schaumkuss-1” by Rainer Z 18:49, 19 April 2008 (UTC) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

They exist in other countries, but usually with real milk cream, as opposed to the dairy-free Israeli version. (The one pictured above is German, I believe.) Why dairy-free, you ask? Because that makes them¬†pareve, meaning neither milk nor meat, so they can be eaten as a dessert after a meat meal. (See “Jew Food, Part III: In Which Things Get Ridiculously Complicated” ūüėõ ) So desserts that are pareve¬†are more widely sold and consumed than dairy ones, and I guess the Israeli manufacturers decided it would be more profitable.¬†The storekeeper was correct:¬†Krembos are indeed considered the Israeli winter-season answer to¬†ice cream. (This is completely unfathomable to me. Why should there be any need whatsoever for a winter replacement for ice cream?! I’ll eat it anytime!)

So, there happens to be a very silly song by a well known dati leumi (religious Zionist) artist, Aaron Razel, about the Krembo. Well, actually, it’s not really about the Krembo; it’s about Talmudic logic. You see…. we are perfectly aware that sometimes the intricate details of deliberation involved in deciphering Jewish law can seem a little ridiculous. The adjective “Talmudic” has two definitions in the English dictionary, the first being, of course, “of or relating to the Talmud,” and the second: “characterized by or making extremely fine distinctions; overly detailed or subtle; hairsplitting.” (Both from

As mentioned in The Great Post of Jewish Conspiracies, Jews have always excelled at making light of themselves, and Aaron Razel–who studied at the same yeshiva as Eitan, by the way–does just that in this song. The lyrics were adapted from an actual correspondence between a religious Jew and a rabbi, that Razel read¬†in a Sabbath newsletter. He¬†was tickled by the poetic quality of the question and answer, and decided to set it to music. Here is the silly music video, and my translation of the lyrics below.

The Biscuit and the Cream (also known as “The Krembo Song”)

[Spoken:] Hello? Hello? I have a question… I have a halakhic question. May I?

[The question:]

Regarding the Krembo
Which is commonly eaten
In winter, on the bottom,
It has a round biscuit

Upon which the cream rests…
The cream and the biscuit,
Are as one unit,
The cream and the biscuit,
The biscuit and the cream

The question is, on the Sabbath
The question is, on the Sabbath
If one does not like
Or does not want for whatever reason
To eat the biscuit,
Would it be permitted to separate it from the cream,
Put it aside,
And eat only the cream?


[The answer:]

It appears that it is forbidden to separate them,
It appears that it is forbidden to separate them,
It is forbidden to separate them,
Despite the fact that they are as one piece,
For practically speaking,
They are like two types of food.

But if
He separates the biscuit
From the cream
In a way that makes it clear
That the biscuit will be left
With a little cream,
In a way that makes it clear
That the biscuit will be left
With a little cream,
If it is clear,
It will be permitted!
Then, then, then, then
It will be permitted!

[Repeat first verse]

And now you must be wondering: what could possibly be the problem with separating the biscuit from the cream on the Sabbath?!

So here’s where I give some more detail on the prohibitions of the Sabbath! I gave a general explanation about “creative activities” in my post about Shabbat. But how do we know what an “act of creation” is? Which acts are forbidden, and which are permitted? The Oral Law¬†teaches that the Divine commandment to avoid acts of creation on the Sabbath was placed, in the Torah, in close proximity to¬†the instructions for building¬†the Tabernacle, to teach that it is precisely the acts of creation that were necessary to build the Tabernacle that are prohibited on Shabbat. The Sages identify 39 categories of work that are included. The rest of the prohibitions of the Sabbath are derived from those 39 categories. There are also some additional restrictions set in place by the Sages in order to preserve the character of Shabbat and to prevent one from unintentionally¬†transgressing a Torah prohibition (a concept we call “building a fence around the Torah”). I’m not going to list all 39 categories here, because it¬†will probably bore you (though seriously, I never know with you ūüėõ ), but they include things like: all kinds of¬†field work and food preparation, slaughtering animals and making material from their skins, building, writing, sewing, etc.

“Okay,” says you, “I read that entire paragraph and I still have¬†no idea why there should be a problem to remove the biscuit from the cream of a Krembo on Shabbat!”

Wait for it: one of the 39 categories is “selection.” The original action upon which this was based was the act of sifting or separating the debris from the grain. But the 39 categories are not specific; they are a “template” from which we derive the¬†kinds of actions we are supposed to avoid. So the prohibition of selection doesn’t just mean you’re not allowed to remove the debris from the grain. It means that it is prohibited to remove undesirable items from a mixture–of any kind.¬†(For example, if you have a bowl of raisins and peanuts, and you hate peanuts and only want the raisins, you are not allowed to remove just the peanuts from the bowl. You are, however, allowed to pick out the raisins to eat immediately.)

So coming back to our Krembo,¬†here’s¬†the situation: we have a food item that is a mixture of two types of foods. (If it were one type of food, removing a part of it that was edible might not constitute selection.)¬†Now, if our hypothetical Jew actually liked both the biscuit and the cream, there would be no problem separating the pieces, because both of them would be desirable! But because he dislikes biscuits, the biscuit is undesirable to him, therefore making that action “selection.” So, the rabbi offers a solution: if you separate the pieces in such a way that leaves a little of the desirable part (the cream) on the biscuit, it’s not considered separation, and therefore, it is permissible. Tada!

And there was much rejoicing throughout the land! By Zivya (◊ź◊†◊ô) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons. Cropped from original image.
And there was great rejoicing throughout the land!
By Zivya (◊ź◊†◊ô) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons. Cropped from original image.

And you thought kashrut was complicated. ūüėõ

This example, conveyed so humorously¬†in the song, gives a good peek into the inner workings of Jewish law…. and demonstrates why religious Jews need rabbis. Very few people could¬†possibly maintain enough knowledge to be able to answer every single question like this that comes up from the most inconsequential situations! Rabbis are “experts” in halakha. A good comparison is how doctors are experts in medicine. In some cases, when you get sick, you don’t need a doctor–you know what to do to take care of yourself. But when you encounter a medical situation you are not familiar with, or that requires some expertise, you go see a doctor–a family physician or general practitioner. If it is something he feels he is not equipped to handle, he will refer you to a specialist–someone with greater expertise in that specific area. That’s exactly how it works in halakha. Sometimes you know enough to answer the question yourself. Sometimes you ask your local rabbi and he can answer for you, and sometimes, if it’s a very complicated issue, he must consult other rabbis who have greater expertise to come up with the answer.

So… scoff as they might at the “hairsplitting” quality of Talmud study,¬†it¬†requires great¬†skill in¬†logical¬†reasoning as well as creativity.¬†No wonder a disproportionate number of the world’s sharpest minds emerged from the nation¬†whose lives revolved around it for more than a thousand years. ūüôā



Different Kinds of Jews, Part II: 2,000 Years of Arguing

So as with Part I, I have to begin with a disclaimer: I am a modern Orthodox American-Israeli Jew, and this entry, as well as the rest of the blog, reflects that perspective. So if you ask a differently affiliated Jew to define his or her community or other groups or subgroups, you may get different answers.

As before, there are many groups that will not be mentioned because this is a vast topic that could (and does) fill several books, and I‚Äôm sticking to the ones that are most prominent and well-known. I thereby apologize in advance to any member of any group or denomination that is not properly addressed in the categories that follow‚Äďand invite you to mention it in the comments, and to write us a guest letter to tell us about your community.

A reminder for those who haven’t read part I: this is technically from the archives; an expanded/reworked e-mail I sent to Josep about a year ago.

Dear Josep,

In Part I we addressed Jewish cultural identity and the subcultures within Judaism. But more well-known than the division between Ashkenazim, Sephardim, etc., is the division between Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and other denominations of Judaism. In this entry we will discuss how these movements came to be and how they differ from one another. We will also discuss Hassidism and its influence on Jewish practice and thought.

Religious Denominations/Levels of Religiosity

So this is where I get myself in trouble. ūüėõ

The first thing to understand about the idea of “level of religiosity” is that it’s a fairly¬†modern phenomenon. Up until the 19th century, there was no need to define a “religious” Jew because everyone was religious, and someone who abandoned the traditional practices of Judaism pretty much abandoned the faith and the community altogether. It was only at the time of the “enlightenment” in the 1800’s that Reform Judaism came about that the concept of a “secular Jew” came into existence.

That said, throughout history there were disputes between Jews on how to properly observe the Torah. (All together now: “Two Jews, three opinions…”) In the time of Jesus, for example, Judaism was split into two major sects: the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who each had different ideas about how to observe the Torah. Mainstream Orthodox Judaism is basically descended from the tradition of the Pharisees. There is speculation that the¬†Karaites, a movement that emerged¬†around the 8th century,¬†are the “ideological descendants” of the Sadducees. Karaite Judaism¬†rejects rabbinic Judaism and the idea of the “Oral Torah” altogether, and believe that the written Torah must be observed literally. (Of course, the reason we have an Oral Torah is to interpret the many vague and difficult concepts in the Torah, so the Karaites developed their own tradition on how to interpret it.)¬†There is still a small community of Karaite Jews, most of them in Israel.

Another thing that’s important to understand is that the most well-known “denominations”–Reform and Conservative–are mostly¬†American today. Reform Judaism began in Germany, but its center shifted to the USA as the Jewish population in the US grew and the one in Europe shrunk due to emigration and the Holocaust. In Israel, the breakdown is a lot fuzzier, because as a general rule, Sephardim and MizraŠł•im tend to be less stuck on self-definition (and more traditional). I’ll get to the Israeli definitions of religious level soon.

Orthodox Judaism

This is a general term for mainstream traditional¬†Judaism: Jews who observe Jewish law as interpreted by the mainstream rabbinic authorities throughout history. The term “orthodox” was borrowed from Christianity by the Reform movement, and I don’t particularly like to use it to describe myself. I prefer to describe myself as an “observant Jew”, meaning, I observe the commandments. But many people don’t know what this means, so when speaking to people who aren’t familiar with that term I usually use “Orthodox”.

Within this category you will find the Šł•aredim, the “ultra-Orthodox”, as well as “modern Orthodox”. In Israel, “modern Orthodox” is mostly interchangeable with “Zionist religious” (or “national religious”–dati leumi), because Šł•aredim tend to be non-Zionist. Eitan and I consider ourselves dati leumi (see below under “Religiosity in Israel”).

Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism came about in the 19th century, when science became the new religion of Western society. Reformers saw the Torah and the observance of traditional Jewish law as outdated and superstitious. Basically, Reform Jews don’t see the Torah as being binding in any way, and many of them don’t believe that the Torah was given by God. If you ask a Reform Jew what he or she thinks the Torah is, you might get a wide variety of answers, but most would probably agree that it is a collection of wisdom (man-made, and perhaps “Divinely inspired”) that they feel has value–only some of which is still applicable today. Many Reform Jews take ideas from the Torah (and the body of rabbinic teachings that they mostly reject) and apply them to modern Western values. A favorite is “tikkun olam”, “fixing the world” which is actually a fairly vague, mystical concept from Kabbalah, but is often applied to mean that man has responsibility to improve the world and make it a better place through social and environmental activism.

Conservative Judaism

Conservative Judaism was a sort of counter-reaction to the Reform movement. Some Jews agreed with the Reform movement that Judaism needed some updating for the modern world, but did not want to reject the teachings of the Torah. So the Conservative movement started as sort of a middle ground between Orthodox and Reform. Conservative Jews do, for the most part, believe that the Torah is of Divine origin, but they believe that the Law is much more flexible than the Orthodox do–in that they don’t see the precedents of previous generations as being nearly as binding as the Orthodox see them. They believe halakha is meant to be adapted as much as possible to modern times and reinterpreted to suit progressive¬†sensibilities.¬†So they tend to be more egalitarian and liberal than the Orthodox–mixed seating in synagogue, female rabbis, gay marriage etc.–using their interpretation of halakha to find ways to permit things that Orthodox Judaism prohibits, for the sake of adapting to Western values. Practically speaking, however, in many Conservative congregations, the members of the community are not strict about observing the Conservative¬†version of halakha, and there can be¬†a huge gap between the level of observance of the rabbis and that of the congregants.

Now… you being¬†a secular liberal who doesn’t have a solidified opinion on the source of the Torah or its historical accuracy, I’m sure the above two movements make a lot more sense to you than the Orthodox approach. So¬†you may be asking yourself, “Daniella is a reasonably intelligent, rational, open-minded person; why wouldn’t she be on board, at least with the Conservative movement?”

So here’s my personal take on “adapting halakha for modern times”. I believe there is a reason God set up the halakhic system as we have observed it for thousands of years.¬†While I identify with many of the “progressive” Western values, man-made values shift and change over time, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. I think the Torah is the expression of a value system that is eternal and Divine, and I believe that the Orthodox halakhic system is the most authentic way to interpret it in the way He wished. To me, adapting¬†halakha to better suit¬†Western values feels like taking a¬†ring of the finest silver and coating it in stainless steel. It’s taking a Divine value system and stuffing it into a fickle man-made frame. I think serving God should be about adapting yourself to His system, not adapting His system to yourself. As I have mentioned many times, this isn’t always easy, and the system is not perfect. Modern Orthodox Jews often struggle to reconcile our strong belief in Torah and our identification with Western values when they seem at odds with each other. So I understand how others might feel differently about it. We live in confusing times, and God does not reveal Himself and His will the way He used to; we are meant to choose our path, and growing up with so many different voices that sound reasonable and good, it is hard to know which path is the right one. I believe the Orthodox halakhic system is the closest to God’s true will, so that’s the one I try to follow.

There are other, smaller American denominations, but I’m not going to get into those as I don’t know much about them. The above are the three major ones.

Religiosity in Israel

While Reform and Conservative communities¬†do exist in Israel, for the most part they are extremely small and isolated, mostly of American or European¬†immigrants. In most of Israeli society, it’s a spectrum of observance, more than a set of strictly defined groups, but it basically breaks down like this.¬†Secular Jews (Šł•iloni in Hebrew) don’t keep the commandments like kosher or Shabbat. The majority of Israelis are traditional Jews (masorti in Hebrew), who keep some of the customs/traditions, but not all. For instance, in a traditional Jewish family, they might make kiddush over wine and light Shabbat candles, but then go watch TV. Or they might eat strictly kosher but not keep Shabbat. It’s really a continuum. Religious Jews (dati in Hebrew) are observant Jews who keep all the commandments, and those generally divide up between modern Zionist (dati leumi), ultra-Orthodox Zionist (Šł•aredi leumi), and ultra-Orthodox non-Zionist (Šł•aredi). (Yes, there is such a thing as a non-Zionist Jew living in Israel. And their attitude towards the state is a serious political issue.) Datiim leumiim are also sometimes called “kipa sruga” (“crocheted kippah”) because they are the ones who wear colorful crocheted kippot, as opposed to the Šł•aredim who wear black velvet and/or black hats. (…When you SMSed me to ask what color kipa to buy, I figured it was too complicated to explain the intricacies of these differences, and it didn’t really matter anyway. I was not surprised to see that you subconsciously chose to identify with the religious stream Eitan and I belong to. ūüėõ )

Needless to say, crocheting is a highly prized skill in our community. :P I can crochet, but making kippot bores me to death.
Needless to say, crocheting is a highly prized skill in our community. ūüėõ I can do it, but making kippot bores me to death.
Kippot” by Zero0000Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Šł§aredim keep a much stricter version of halakha than datiim leumiim, at least outwardly (modesty of dress, level of strictness about kashrut, separation between men and women in public, level of interaction with the secular world etc.).¬†Women are generally treated with respect, but there is a very strong focus on modesty and traditional gender roles, sometimes to an extreme that leads to marginalization and other unpleasant social issues. American Šł•aredim tend to be more open and “progressive” than Israeli Šł•aredim.

It is very easy to differentiate between datiim and Šł•aredim by the way they dress. Dati men wear kipot, may or may not have a beard and/or payot (sidecurls), may dress in regular casual clothes (T-shirts and shorts) or may dress more like Eitan–button down shirts and long pants. The women dress more or less like me: no restrictions on color, shirts with sleeves (the more religious you are the longer the sleeve), skirts past the knee, and married women usually cover their hair to some degree, usually with a scarf or hat.

This criminally adorable couple, for example. Eitan is wearing a kippah and tzitzit with the fringes hanging out (you can see the knots from one of them next to the edge of his shirt...). My hair is mostly covered, sleeves past the elbow, modest neckline, skirt past the knee.
This criminally adorable couple, for example. Eitan is wearing a crocheted kippah and tzitzit with the fringes hanging out (you can see the knots from one of them next to the edge of his shirt…). I have most of my hair covered with a scarf.

Šł§aredi men wear black suits all the time, and the women wear only dull or pale colors, clothes that are non form-fitting, stockings and closed-toed shoes so the only skin you can see is their hands, face and neck. Single women keep their hair tied back, and married women completely cover their hair, usually with a wig, but sometimes with a scarf¬†or hat.

A Hassidic/haredi family in Brooklyn. By Adam Jones [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
A Hassidic/haredi family in Brooklyn.
By Adam Jones [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Now as a Christian you may note with curiosity that none of this categorization corresponds to belief. Whether someone believes in God or not does not actually define him religiously in Israeli culture. Judaism is about what you do. So you might find a completely secular Jew who believes in God and may even believe that the Torah is Divine, but just doesn’t feel it’s relevant to him. Or you may find a traditional Jew who doesn’t really believe in God but thinks that the Jewish traditions are an important connection to his heritage and past.

Spiritual Approach (Hassidism vs. Lithuanians)

Another group you may have heard of is the¬†Šł§assidim.

So what is Šł§assidism?¬†It was a sort of Jewish renewal movement founded in the 17th century by a rabbi called the Baal Shem Tov. Up until that point, Judaism had become a kind of elitist society where learned scholars were seen as being far more important than the common folk in terms of service of God. The approach was generally very dry, rationalist and intellectual. The Baal Shem Tov sought to bring feeling and heartfelt service into the practice of Judaism. He also sought to teach that even the lowliest of peasants was just as important in God’s eyes as the great scholars. This seems totally basic now, but back then, it was pretty revolutionary. There were a number of other ideas spread by Šł§assidism, one of which was the concept of the “tzaddik”, the “righteous person”, who was a conduit to the Divine. Šł§assidim believed that by being close physically and spiritually to a tzaddik, they would be closer to God, too.

So as you can probably tell by now, parts of the Šł§assidic approach filtered down into most of Jewish practice today. But back then it was seen as a frivolous, anti-rationalist, and maybe even dangerous movement, and there was a strong counter-movement–the Mitnagdim (which literally means “the opposers”), led by the Gaon of Vilna (hence the term “Lithuanians”). He was a rationalist and felt that the Šł§assidim had their heads in the clouds and were not taking Jewish law seriously enough.

“Torah is serious business, people. WHY ARE YOU DANCING?!”

This was a major, bitter schism within European Judaism that lasted pretty much all the way up until the Holocaust.

Nowadays, practically speaking, you can hardly tell Šł§assidim and Lithuanians apart. Šł§assidic sects tend to be ultra-Orthodox/Šł•aredi and dress in the same black and white garb. There are some distinct¬†features of their traditional dress, such as the streimel, a round fur hat that some Šł§assidim wear on Shabbat and holidays. They do have a lot more singing and dancing than non-Šł§assidic Šł•aredi sects, and tend to be more involved in mysticism and Kabbalah. Non-Šł§assidim are more rationalist in their approach.

I mention all this because there are two particular Šł§assidic sects that are particularly relevant–the first because you are very likely to hear about them, and the second because I have a special connection to their philosophies and I am likely to mention them in the future.¬†Incidentally, both of them have a common feature: their “rebbe”, great rabbinic leader, is dead. (In every other Šł§assidic sect, there is a live rebbe who serves as the “tzaddik” and passes his status down through his sons and/or followers.)

The first sect¬†is Chabad¬†(pronounced¬†Šł§abad, but usually spelled Chabad. Except in Spain, where it’s spelled Jabad. Even in Barcelona, though the Catalan “j” isn’t the same as the Spanish “j”. Go figure).¬†They are also¬†known as Lubavitch, the Yiddish¬†name for the Russian village Lyubavichi, where the sect originated. These are the Šł§assidim you are most likely to meet because they are very into Jewish outreach and set up “houses” in all these random places all over the world where they offer all kinds of services to Jews who visit and live there. They tend to be very open and accepting in these contexts, and many people begin their journey of becoming religious through them. (As I just mentioned, Barcelona has a Chabad house too. I was in touch with them before I came; they weren’t particularly helpful, apparently in the tradition of modern Catalan Jews… :-/ ) Their “rebbe”, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (…”sch” is the Yiddish/German sound pronounced “sh”… sheesh, will the pronunciation confusion never end!) was a truly great man, and many of them believed that he was the Messiah. Some Chabadnikim still do believe this, which feels suspiciously Christian to the rest of us ūüėõ but we love them anyway because they do great things!

The other Šł§assidic sect I want to mention is Breslov. Their rebbe, Rabbi NaŠł•man of Breslov, lived in Ukraine in the 18th century and taught some really amazing things about despair, happiness, and developing a close and personal relationship with God. He is most famous for the following statements: “All of the world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to make yourself afraid.” “If you believe that it’s possible to destroy, believe that it is possible to repair.” His followers practice a sort of meditation called hitbodedut, which simply involves talking to God like a friend, telling Him about all your troubles, asking Him for whatever you want, even the tiniest things. I really connected with this idea of a personal relationship as a teenager, and though I feel I have become more distant in recent years, I yearn to return to the simplicity of being in constant dialogue with the Creator this way.

Anyway, Breslov also attracts many “ba’alei teshuva” (people who start out secular and become religious) because of its deep and heartfelt philosophy. If you’re ever in Israel and see this:

…don’t call the police, that’s just Breslovers trying to make people happy. ūüėõ Cultivating joy is a large component of their practice.

And thus we conclude Part II!



Mikveh: A Spiritual Womb

Dear Josep,

Everybody who knows anything about Jewish archaeology knows that there are three main architectural markers that indicate that a settlement was Jewish. One, of course, is an indentation on the doorpost for the mezuza. Another, obviously, is the existence of a synagogue. The third is the mikveh, the ritual bath. I know you have heard of these because you mentioned the discovery of one in the ancient Jewish quarter of Girona.

This one was built in the 12th century in Speyer, Germany.
This one was built in the 12th century in Speyer, Germany.
Judenbad Speyer 6 View from the first room down” by Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

So what are these baths, what are they used for, and why are they literally the first thing a Jewish community builds–even before the synagogue?

What is a Mikveh?

The word “mikveh” (often spelled and pronounced “mikvah” in English, but “mikveh” is a more accurate transliteration) means “collection” or “gathering”. A mikveh is a collection of water from a natural source. This can be a naturally occurring “collection”, such as a spring, lake, sea or ocean; or, it can be an artificial “collection”,¬†but this has to be done in a very specific way to maintain the water’s “natural” status. It must contain¬†at least 750 liters of water (198 gallons).

Here is a video that explains in detail how a modern indoor mikveh is constructed.

What Is It Used For?

Well… now that we have no Temple, there are three¬†main uses, which I will describe below. But back in the days of the Temple, immersion in a mikveh was in imperative part of the spiritual purification process required of anyone who visited or worked at the Temple.

What is Tahara (Ritual Purity)?

Let’s get this straight before we go on: the mikveh is indeed a “bath” that uses water, but when we use the concepts of purity (tahara) and impurity (tum’a), we are¬†not talking about cleanliness. Tahara¬†and tum’a¬†are simply different spiritual states of being. Tum’a¬†is a state that is associated with a variety of restrictions, depending on the type of the impurity. We know nothing about what it actually is or means, but it is often associated with death in some form. Tahara is its opposite. This is a vast subject in Jewish law, most of which is not currently relevant because the Temple does not currently exist and most of the matters pertaining to ritual purity have¬†to do with Temple service. The only type of tum’a¬†that is currently relevant and can be reversed by immersion in a mikveh, is¬†niddah. We’ll get to that in a moment.

A Gateway to Another State of Being

So why is water required for this purification process? There is much to be said about the symbolism and spiritual significance of water, and it is not unique to Judaism. Christianity and Islam also use water for spiritual purification. (The differences between immersion in the mikveh and baptism will become clear over the course of the letter.) In¬†Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book “The Waters of Eden”, he explains that all naturally occurring water in the world originated in the four rivers of the Garden of Eden that are mentioned in Genesis, and thus, natural water sources connect us physically to our spiritual source–the state of spiritual purity in which Adam and Eve existed before their sin. That sin is what brought the possibility of death into existence, and as I said, there is a connection between tum’a and death. So it makes sense for contact with the spiritual state of the Garden of Eden would be what would remove that influence from our bodies.

When we immerse in the mikveh, we must remove all physical barriers–dirt, stray hair, etc.–and immerse our entire bodies, so that we are completely surrounded by the water. The water can be likened in this way to amniotic fluid, and the mikveh to a spiritual womb–or grave. It is a gateway to another state of being. Thus encompassed in the water, we are “reborn” into a new spiritual state–the state of tahara.

Immersion of Vessels (Tevilat Keilim)

One of the uses of mikvaot today is the ritual immersion of vessels made of metal or glass that were produced by a non-Jew. The Torah (Numbers 31:21-23) commands us that when we want to use vessels made of various kinds of metals that were previously used by non-Jews to prepare or serve food, we must first immerse them in a mikveh. Our sages decided that glass must also be immersed because, like metal, it can be melded back together if it is broken. Clay or stone vessels do not require immersion.

Why does the Torah require this? The short answer is, as with everything to do with ritual purity, that we don’t know. I like to think of it as a way to physically dedicate the use of whatever vessel it is to be used for sacred purposes–feeding my children, cooking kosher food, preparing food to celebrate the holidays, etc. Yet another way to bring awareness of the Divine into the mundane.

This is not to be confused with kashering vessels. Immersion of vessels is a separate mitzvah.

Family Purity (Taharat HaMishpacha)

So what is niddah?¬†Niddah is a state of tum’a that is brought on by menstruation. Remember how I said that tum’a is usually connected in some way to death? In this case, it’s not so much death, as the loss of potential for life. One might also find a connection between it and Eve’s curse, bringing us back to the connection between tahara and the waters of Eden.

The practical implication of this state of tum’a is just one thing: “You shall not come near to revealing the nakedness of a woman in her state of niddah.” (Leviticus 18:19) Meaning, sexual relations, and anything that might lead to them, are¬†forbidden. The sages unanimously agree that this means any kind of physical contact between a woman in niddah and a man who is not a close family member (a parent, grandparent, or sibling)–especially not her husband.

Yes. This means that for around 12 days every month (5 minimum for¬†menstruation+7 “clean” days–won’t get into how we reach those calculations here, it’s too complicated), I cannot hug my husband or hold his hand or even pat him on the back.

…And you thought it was horribly restrictive and frustrating that I can’t hug¬†you. ūüėõ

Remember when I told you I didn’t want to get into the technical explanation about that? So, here it is. ūüėõ The touch restriction applies to anyone to whom one is sexually prohibited–except close family members. I’m sure that doesn’t surprise you, but this will: the prohibition against premarital sex is actually not¬†from the Torah; it is¬†purely rabbinical.¬†But¬†any sexually mature woman who has yet to immerse in a mikveh, as with most unmarried religious Jewish women, is niddah, and therefore the restriction applies. And a woman who is tehora, but married, is obviously prohibited to anyone except her husband. So. Yeah.

Yes, I know it feels like a huuuuuuge stretch to think of any kind of physical contact as “coming close” to sexual relations, especially in a platonic friendship, and we’ve had that conversation before. ūüėČ As you know, some halakhic authorities permit leniency in cases of touch that is clearly formal, such as shaking hands, and I tend to hold by that to avoid embarrassing people; but once you are friends, any kind of touch is inherently affectionate, and that’s halakhically off limits.

And yes, I know it sucks. Have an e-hug. ūüėČ

Back to “family purity”. The fact is¬†that in a healthy romantic relationship, there can be¬†something really positive about this cycle of drawing apart and coming together again.¬†Having limited time to be together can make¬†you prioritize nurturing your physical relationship while it is permitted, and nurture the other aspects of your relationship while it is forbidden. Moreover, there is something in this period of “forbiddenness” that adds an aspect of yearning and desire. Niddah gives us an opportunity to long¬†for each other.¬†And that¬†makes the eventual reunion that much sweeter and more meaningful and powerful.

…Aaaaand that’s all I’m going to say about that. ūüėõ

ANYWAY.¬†Where were we? Right, niddah. So once a woman completes her seven “clean” days, she must remove all physical barriers from her body and immerse in a mikveh. After she immerses, she is¬†tehora, and she and her husband are permitted to each other again.

And¬†that, as I’m sure you now understand, is why the mikveh is such a crucial part of any permanent Jewish community. ūüėȬ†The practice of family purity is one of “the Big Three” commandments that are central to observant Jewish life, and basically serve as a litmus test for whether one is halakhically observant or not. The other two are Shabbat and kashrut. Obviously, what goes on in other people’s bedrooms is absolutely none of anyone else’s business, so the latter two are generally how people identify each other as observant. I should also say¬†that along the observant spectrum there are people who interpret “coming close to” more liberally, and don’t have a problem with non-sexual physical contact. While I still must say that unfortunately, I do not feel that this interpretation falls within the halakhic framework, I still consider these people to be observant. (In fact, I had one such person give you a hug for me recently, didn’t I? ūüėČ )

Conversion to Judaism

Immersion in the mikveh is the final step in the process of a halakhic conversion. Conversion to Judaism is another vast topic about which I know rather little. What I do know is that it is very difficult and involves months, if not years, of intensive study, as well as being “adopted” by a Jewish family and living within an observant community for a certain length of time. At the end of this process, the potential convert appears before a¬†beit din, a panel of¬†dayanim (judges) who test him or her on his or her knowledge of Jewish law. If the beit din decides that the person is knowledgeable enough and is truly committed to becoming a halakhically observant Jew, the convert then goes to the mikveh–the spiritual womb. S/he goes into the water¬†as a non-Jew, and emerges “reborn” as a Jew.

This probably reminds you of baptism, and in some ways it is an apt comparison. In both cases, there is some kind of immersion in water that creates an irreversible spiritual change in the religious identity of that individual.¬†The major difference is that you can be “accidentally” or forcibly baptized, and the baptism is still binding. (As you know, this created some fairly problematic situations in the past…) Jewish halakhic (Orthodox) conversion, however,¬†is completely impossible¬†if you do not have a sincere intention to become a Jew and stay a Jew. If, at the moment of immersion, the potential convert does not intend to be Jewish and observe the Torah, the immersion is completely meaningless. If, however, s/he was totally sincere at that moment, but the next day changes his/her mind and decides to be a Hindu, s/he is still a Jew–forever. Children can be converted, even as infants, but when they reach the age of halakhic responsibility (bar or bat mitzvah), they can¬†protest the conversion; meaning, the conversion is conditional, depending on whether the child decides, once he or she is of age, to continue being Jewish. So Jewish conversion can only happen with intention and consent, and under the supervision of a beit din.

Other Immersion

There are men (and non-Orthodox women) who immerse in the mikveh for spiritual or traditional reasons. While this is thought to be spiritually cleansing, particularly in Chassidic/Kabbalistic thought, it is not a Torah required immersion, so the whole “removal of barriers” is not required, and men may not recite the blessing¬†for immersion as women do when immersing for niddah. Men will immerse before visiting the Temple Mount, and many men will make a point of immersing before Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement. Entry to come in its time. ūüėČ ).

…Well,¬†I’m sure I’ve given you plenty to chew on there!



Passover, Part II: Seder Night 101

Dear Josep,

In Part I, I mentioned that the Seder (and Passover in general) are all about interactive and experiential learning that is usually directed towards the next generation: the kids. This actually does not begin on Seder night, but on the night before, with a special ritual we call bedikat chametz.

Bedikat Chametz

In the weeks and days before Passover, as mentioned in Part I, we thoroughly clean and check our homes for any recognizable traces of chametz (leavened products; see part I for explanation). On the evening before Passover, we hold a special ritual to symbolically finish this task, called¬†bedikat chametz, “checking for chametz”. We make a blessing, and then turn off all the lights in the house, and by the light of candles and flashlights, search for little pieces of chametz that were intentionally hidden by one of the family members (traditionally it’s 10 pieces). Obviously, this would be an extremely inefficient way to¬†actually check for chametz; this is more symbolic than anything else, and it’s a fun game for the kids, kind of like a treasure hunt in the dark! When all the pieces of chametz have been found, we recite a passage in Aramaic that effectively nullifies any chametz that we have missed in our search. We declare that if there is any chametz left, to us it will be like “the dust of the earth”.

The following day, any remaining chametz (that will not be sold) must be burned or otherwise destroyed in a way that makes it unusable (such as pouring bleach all over it).

(True story: I cleaned, searched, vacuumed, and scrubbed my house top to bottom, and first day of Passover this year, I discovered two granola bars of dust in my purse. Thanks to the above declaration, it’s all good–I simply destroyed the evidence and removed it from the premises. ūüėõ )

The Seder

The holiday begins with lighting candles at sundown, as with every other Biblical holiday. A service is held at the synagogue, and then all families return to their homes to begin the Seder. It is a very strong tradition to have the Seder with lots of people, generally with one’s extended family, and/or lots of guests. When an Israeli asks me what I’m doing for Seder this year and I say, “Just the five of us,” s/he gives me a look that is halfway between pity and horror. Even Jews with very little connection to tradition and halakha tend to attend some kind of Seder. I guess the parallel would be like how Christmas is celebrated so widely even by people who don’t really consider themselves Christian. We like to have quiet, intimate Seders, so there is room for discussion but things don’t drag out too long, and especially when our kids got old enough to participate, we really want to keep their attention as long as possible. Back in the USA, we generally had our Seders with my dad’s parents in New York and whatever aunts and uncles were around.

The word “Seder” means “order”, referring to the ten steps to the ritual meal that must be carried out in order. The Haggadah, briefly mentioned in the entry about the Jewish holy books, guides us through these steps, which mostly involve reading the passages aloud¬†and eating symbolic foods that help us commemorate¬†those events. The symbolic foods are arranged at the center of the table on the Seder plate:

Our seder plate. Explanations of each of these symbols below.
Our seder plate. Explanations of each of these symbols below.

We also set three matzot on the table in a pile and covered by a cloth.

The table is set, the kids and guests are seated, and we begin:

Kadesh (Sanctification)

The leader of the Seder (usually the head of the household) recites the¬†kiddush over a cup of wine. This is the same kind of “declaration” of the sanctity of the day that we perform on Shabbat and other holidays. If the Seder falls on a Friday night (as it did this year), the¬†kiddush for Shabbat is recited as well. Then, we all drink our first cup of wine while reclining. This¬†is symbolic of our freedom, as royals used to eat while reclining. (Yes, I said “first” cup of wine. There are four. It’s gonna be a long night. ūüėČ ) (Grape juice is okay for those of us who would rather remain sober…)

Urchatz (Washing)

We wash our hands as though for bread, but without the blessing. We are not about to eat bread, but there is a custom to wash our hands this way before eating a food that is dipped in liquid.

Karpas (Green Vegetable)

We eat a green vegetable, usually parsley or celery, dipped in salt water. The green vegetable symbolizes spring, and the salt water symbolizes the tears we shed under the oppression of slavery. The Polish tradition is to do this with potato, which is not a green vegetable, but good luck finding anything green in Poland at this time of year ūüėõ

Yachatz (Splitting in Half)

The leader of the Seder takes the middle matza from the pile and breaks it in half. The bigger half is hidden away as the afikoman, which will be eaten later.

Maggid (Retelling)

Maggid is the centerpiece¬†of the Haggadah; the section¬†that actually contains the retelling of the story of the Exodus.¬†There is no way I’m going to cover all its contents here. For that, you’ll have to actually read a Haggadah. (Conveniently, Chabad has a full English version here.)¬†You’ll notice that it doesn’t really follow the narrative the way you would expect. To understand why… well, you’ll just have to come to our Seder someday, and we can discuss it long into the night–as per the tradition. ūüôā

So by this point in the evening, if you have never been to a Seder before, you are going to be really confused. What is going on? Why are we eating these weird things? Why is this holiday so different from other holidays?

Well, that’s how Maggid kicks off the story. The smallest child at the table recites the Four Questions:¬†Why is this night different from all the other nights–that on all other nights, we eat chametz and matza, but on this night, only matza? That on all other nights, we eat all kinds of vegetables, but on this night, we eat bitter herbs? That on all other nights, we don’t dip our food even once, but on this night, we dip it twice? That¬†on all other nights, we eat sitting or reclining, but on this night, we all recline?

The idea of the Seder is to make the children curious so they will ask questions like these.

The answer to those questions comes right away: Once, our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, and God saved us from their hands. The text then dwells a little on the concept of retelling the story and educating our children about the Exodus, and then goes on to describe the story of the Exodus and interpretations of the passages and events by various sages. (Remember, the Haggadah is an extremely old text that was written around the time of the Talmud, so the passages reflect rabbinic discourse of that period.)

The most poignant part of the Seder, in my view, is the following passage, recited in the middle of Maggid: “And it is [that promise] that has stood for our fathers and for us, for not only one has arisen against us to destroy us, but in every generation they arise against us to destroy us, but the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from their hand.” This line, written so many centuries ago, has rung true at every single Seder since. This is a beautiful version composed by one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Yonatan Razel, who here changes some of the lyrics to present and future tense to emphasize how relevant this ancient passage still feels.

Rachtza (Washing)

We wash our hands again, this time actually for bread–that is, for…

Motzi Matza

That first word refers to the blessing we make over bread,¬†hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz, “…who brings bread out of the ground”. We make two¬†blessings over the matza–one for the enjoyment of food, and one for the mitzva–and eat the proscribed amount of it while reclining.

Maror (Bitter Herbs)

These are eaten to represent the bitterness of slavery. We usually eat either romaine lettuce or horseradish or some mixture of both. (The horseradish on the plate is that purple stuff. It’s purple because it’s mixed with… la remolatxa1. ūüėõ That is how it’s usually served with the famous (or is it infamous…?) gefilte fish.) We first dip the lettuce or horseradish into that brown mush, which is called¬†charoset, and represents the mortar used by the slaves to make the bricks. It is traditionally made with apples, wine, nuts, and/or dates, and is supposed to be sweet, so it sweetens the bitterness of the herb representing slavery.

Apparently Ben & Jerry’s produced a charoset-flavored ice cream this year. o.O

Korech (Sandwich)

Now we follow a tradition established by Hillel the Elder in the days of the Second Temple. Tradition has it that Hillel sandwiched all the symbolic foods of Passover–the matza, the maror, the¬†charoset, and the Passover sacrifice (a lamb)–and ate them together. Since we have no Temple, we cannot make the sacrifice, so we leave out the lamb. BTW, if you’re still wondering about the shankbone and the egg on the plate–the bone represents the Passover sacrifice, and the egg represents the Chagiga (holiday) sacrifice.

Shulchan Orech (Setting the Table)

This is where we have the feast! Everybody’s favorite part. ūüėõ Traditional foods include¬†knaidlach, or matza balls, dumplings made of ground matza, in chicken soup; the aforementioned gefilte fish, which are balls of ground fish, usually carp; and lamb, in commemoration of the sacrifice. (I happen to dislike lamb. So, beef or chicken it is. As to gefilte fish, usually I can take it or leave it, but I enjoy it as a special Passover thing.)

Tzafun (Hidden)

So remember the piece of matza the leader of the Seder¬†hid away way back before Maggid? Now is the time to find it: it’s the¬†afikoman¬†(that word apparently comes from the ancient Greek for “dessert”). We are required to have¬†a proscribed amount of it as the last thing we eat. But first, the kids have to find it! Another treasure hunt. ūüôā This is a great way to keep them awake and engaged. Another tradition developed out of this that the children then hold the¬†afikoman¬†“captive”, thereby indefinitely delaying the end of the Seder, and “bargaining” to give it back in return for a gift or a treat.

Barech (Bless)

Now we recite Grace After Meals, over a third cup of wine (the second was drunk at the end of Maggid), and then drink that cup and recite the blessing after drinking wine. The final cup of wine is poured.

Hallel (Praise)

Hallel is a special prayer recited on holidays, comprised of Psalms 113-118. The first part of Hallel is recited at the synagogue, and it is continued here, and then we go on to read additional Psalms along the same general theme of God being awesome. The final cup of wine is now drunk. (And if it’s really wine, so are we. ūüėõ )

Nirtzah (Acceptance)

The name is referring to God accepting¬†our completion of the Seder. This is when the Seder officially ends. (There are opinions that this is not a distinct section of the Seder, but that this and the previous are one section–“Hallel Nirtza”.) We sing¬†l’shana haba’ah b’yirushalayim habnuya–next year in rebuilt Jerusalem! Then there are a few more traditional Passover songs, which are generally fun and lively and get everybody’s energy up for the final leg of the Seder. (Great for keeping the kids awake, too.)

The very last song of the Seder, at least in Ashkenazi tradition… you’d think it would be something profound, about freedom, or the purpose of the Jewish people, or maybe even about the holiday itself. But it’s this:

A cumulative song in Aramaic about a little goat that Dad bought for two zuzim (units of money), which gets eaten by a cat, which gets bit by a dog, which gets hit by a stick, which gets burned by a fire, which gets doused by water, which gets drunk by an ox, which gets slaughtered by a shochet (ritual slaughterer), who gets killed by the Angel of Death, who gets destroyed by the Holy One, Blessed Be He.

(And you betcha we sing it with sound effects. ūüėõ )

…I know. Why on earth are we ending the Seder with this silly little ditty?

Obviously, as with everything in the Seder, because it is has important¬†symbolism. The idea of the song is that there is justice in the world, even if we don’t see it at the time; that every action has a consequence, and that, as the Talmud says: “There is justice and there is a Judge“.

Believe it or not, this silly animal song contains the deepest, most fundamental message of the Seder.

Why is it so important for us to remember that God freed us from slavery and brought us out of Egypt?

Because we must remember that there is justice, and there is a Judge, and even when the world seems unjust and terrible things are happening to good people, there is a reason for everything, and it’s all for the ultimate good. Even when we’re at the profoundest¬†depths of despair, God’s redemption can occur in the blink of an eye.

That is the message of the Seder, and that is why the tradition of the Seder¬†has carried us through many other “Egypts” throughout history.

So… that’s the Seder, in a nutshell. Outside of Israel, you “get” to do the whole thing all over again the following night. (I’m sure there are advantages to this, but to me it just sounds exhausting and I am grateful to be here!)

A blessed and happy Passover!



1. La remolatxa is “beet” in Catalan. The only reason I know this word is because I served a Moroccan beet salad to Josep when he was here for Shabbat, and he asked me what it was, but we did not have a common language in which we both knew the word for this vegetable. ūüėõ After Shabbat I Googled it, and now I’ll never forget. (When I clarified, he was like, “Not something I eat every day!” Was that a polite way to tell me he hated it? ūüėõ I decided not to press the issue.)‚Ü©

Passover, Part I: Freedom, Education, and National Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Dear Josep,

So I figured out why I never sent you an e-mail specifically about Passover, even back in 2007 when I would get concerned notes from you wondering if something was wrong because you hadn’t heard from me in 5 days.

(…Yes, apparently that happened.)


The reason is that it is just not possible to capture Passover in a single e-mail. No, not even a Daniella Standard Size e-mail.

So what we’re gonna do is make it a¬†series. In Part I, I will discuss the general concepts of the holiday. In Part II, I will go into detail about the Seder night and¬†the Haggadah.

To begin, let us turn to the age-old template for Jewish holidays: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat”. Does it apply here? Why, yes it does. ūüôā

As you probably know, Passover is the celebration commemorating our freedom from slavery in Egypt, also known as the Exodus.

You know, slavery, burning bush, ten plagues, splitting the sea, all that jazz.
You know, slavery, burning bush, ten plagues, splitting the sea, all that jazz.

It begins on the 15th of Nisan, which is the day the Israelites left Egypt, and lasts seven days in Israel. This year it falls on this coming Friday night through the following Friday. It is one of the three “Regalim”, holidays mentioned¬†in the Torah, on which we were required to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. (“Regel” means “foot”.)

All Regalim, unlike rabbinic holidays, are celebrated similarly to Shabbat, with the same types of restrictions, barring a few differences with regards to the preparation of food. Such a day is known as a “Yom Tov” (literally “good day”). In the case of Passover, it begins and ends with one Yom Tov in Israel (two each outside of Israel), with five days of “chol ha’moed” (“the mundane of the holiday”=days that are still part of the holiday, but with much fewer restrictions) in between. That’s a total of seven days in Israel, and eight outside of Israel. (Why is it different outside of Israel? A reason that is long, complicated, and not so interesting in my opinion. ūüėõ But if you insist, Wikipedia keeps it simple.)

The first night (or two nights outside of Israel) is the crux of the holiday: the Seder night. You may have heard of the Seder; it is believed to have been Jesus’s “last supper” (hence the proximity to Easter). As mentioned, we will elaborate on the Seder in Part II.

But first: why is the Exodus such an important event in the history of our people?

There is a vast amount of rabbinic literature that addresses this question, but here’s the simple answer: the Exodus marks the birth of the nation of Israel. The narrative of the Bible, up until that point, follows a number of individuals, or at most a family, and their interactions with God. We became a multitude under slavery; we became a nation, with a destiny and a purpose, when God gave us our freedom.

It is said that God wanted us to be slaves before giving us the Torah to develop our sense of empathy and justice. You can never really understand someone until you’ve experienced his pain. And you can never know and appreciate the true value of freedom if you have never been a slave. Our purpose is to be¬†a “light unto the nations”, to spread kindness, compassion and justice throughout a corrupt world. We could not have done this without first¬†knowing¬†pain, cruelty, and injustice.

The goal of the Seder night is for every one of us to relive the experience of being freed from slavery. It is a multi-sensory, hands-on educational production, and it revolves around passing the message to the next generation. As we’ve discussed, educating children is a very important mitzvah, and the purpose of some of the strange customs on Seder night is to provoke the children to ask questions. Raising questions is a classic Jewish educational method. We even tend to like excellent questions better than we like excellent answers. ūüėČ

So, that’s freedom, and education. “National obsessive-compulsive disorder”?!

Well… yeah. This is another thing that makes Passover so special, and also such a pain in the neck. Over the seven days of Passover, we are not allowed to eat or possess “chametz“. Chametz means leavened products. That is, any product made out of grain (wheat, barley, oats, spelt, or rye) and water that was cooked over 18 minutes after the flour came in contact with the water–therefore beginning the process of fermentation that causes the dough to rise and become puffy.

Um… wait, you say. Is there¬†any¬†type of grain product that is baked in under 18 minutes?!

Why yes there is. It’s called… matza.

"Shmura Matzo". Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
Appetizing, I know.
Shmura Matzo“. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

This is the bread of Passover, referred to in the Haggadah as the “bread of affliction”. Apt, because it tastes like cardboard, and we are required to eat a fair amount of it on Seder night. (Okay, okay, it’s not that bad. It’s like a very plain cracker.)

So what’s the deal with¬†unleavened bread?

(Good, good, keep up the questions! ūüėČ )

The practical answer is that the Israelites were granted their freedom very quickly and they did not have time to get ready for their trip out of Egypt. The Torah says that they did not have time to let their dough rise for bread, so they made matzot to take on their journey. The prohibition against eating chametz, and the mitzva of eating matza, are both in commemoration of that. There is also an idea that chametz represents the ego, and that on Passover we clean it out of our homes and souls.

So the thing is, you know how obsessive-compulsive Jewish law is about things we’re not allowed to eat… and this applies to chametz too. In fact, it is even¬†more¬†strict than the laws of kashrut.¬†This means that we have to literally kasher our kitchens before the holiday. (Which, as I’ve been trying to tell you all these years, is not nearly as fun as you think it is. ūüėõ ) Most of us have an entirely different set of dishes and cookware set aside specifically for Passover, because not everything can be kashered, and because, again, kashering pots and pans can be a serious pain.

We are also not allowed to¬†own¬†any chametz, which means we have to clean our houses thoroughly (especially us parents of toddlers…) to make sure no bits of crackers/cereal/bread are in accessible places. People (by which I mean “crazy Jewish housewives”) often take this to the extreme and use it as an opportunity to do a very thorough “spring cleaning”… but much of this is not really necessary.

The prohibition against eating chametz also gave way to the most famous of legal fictions in Jewish law. Obviously, getting rid of all one’s chametz can be impractical at best and financially damaging at worst, especially for stores and factories. So we have a rather silly solution: we “sell” the chametz to a non-Jew during the seven days of Passover, keep it covered/hidden during the holiday, and “buy” it back afterwards.

…By the way, can I interest you in some instant oatmeal and maybe a few pitas? ūüėõ

(I kid, I kid. These days we can sell our chametz very easily through rabbis who centralize the “sales” and sell them to a designated non-Jew. We can do this through our synagogue or even on the Internet.)

Well, that’s Passover in a nutshell. Stay tuned for Part II, in which we will discuss the details of the aforementioned multi-sensory, hands-on educational production we call¬†the Seder. ūüėČ

Bona Pasqua!